Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello My name is Ryan Kenny. I’m the founder of The Christmas Tree Hugger, and our product has one goal... Fixing The Fake!
It’s a faux tree bark wrap that covers up the fuzzy ugly green base pole found at the bottom of so many artificial Christmas trees. I like to think of it as the perfect pair of shoes to finish off a killer outfit.
It started as a quick fix for my personal tree and has quickly turned into a 5 star rated one of a kind problem solver holiday item for those who want a better looking fake Christmas tree.
We are making an average of 35K a month and the trend is gaining a ton of momentum since airing on QVC & Shark Tank in 2017.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I come from a design and advertising background and have been an Art Director for 15+ years, working on Madison Avenue for most of that time.
I chose that gig because I’ve been a maker since childhood and have always loved figuring out new ways to solve problems in a creative out of the box way. Another huge part of my personality since childhood has been my interest in entrepreneurship.
As a small business you need to try harder to get noticed, so if that takes you showing up in person to get noticed, go for it!
My friends and I were always coming up with small business ventures. Some examples included opening up a bike repair shop in my garage, starting our own neighborhood newspaper, making and selling a custom formulated wax for skaters to use for grinding on curbs, we even made a haunted house one year and charged candy for admission so we didn't have to go door to door for treats. I could go on and on, but the point is, I’ve always had a desire to make something fun and be my own boss.
I came up with the idea for The Christmas Tree Hugger when my wife and I were setting up our very first artificial tree. After putting the star on top, we sat down on the couch to admire how amazing it all looked and there it was... Just staring at us. That nasty fuzzy green eyesore at the bottom was taking away from the Christmas magic we worked so hard to create.
I assumed there would be something online to fix the bottom area and immediately thought if I could find something that looked like real tree bark, that would be the most logical solution. But, I couldn't find a thing! Basically, after google failed me, I decided to make something myself. And after I did, I was amazed what a big difference it made aesthetically.
When friends and family started commenting on how realistic our tree looked, I realized people were into this notion of upgrading the junky looking bottom area of the tree. That bottom section was literally the last remaining piece of real estate on Christmas trees that has not been loaded up with decorations, and I wanted to stake my claim. But, before I put too much money on the line, it was time to get a pulse from the general public too.
Launching a crowdfunding campaign did the trick, and I was able to raise enough money to cover the cost of trademarking, patenting, and a small high quality production run in China. It also helped out a ton financially that I had my art/advertising background to help me come up with a cute and quirky brand behind the whole idea.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The process of honing in on all the details of design, prototyping and manufacturing was fast and furious.
First, I went to as many stores that sold artificial trees as I could, and started taking measurements of all the poles sizes, lengths, and diameters. This was a task that was often done in the evenings and weekends. I would literally bring measuring tape into the stores and go tree to tree. Got a few strange looks every now and then, especially when I did a few sessions after midnight in Walmart dressed in my pajamas. But, I wanted my product to be adjustable so the more trees I sampled the better.
This visiting of the physical store locations also came in handy for when I was tackling the packaging design and choosing what materials made the most sense to use in manufacturing my product. There's a ton of great inspiration to be found from simply strolling through every aisle in stores like Lowes, Home Depot, Target, Walmart etc. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know, and there were so many valuable notes I took from paying attention to all the items on in store and how they are displayed.
After all those long walks in stores, I had a better idea of what I wanted and was able to drill down into more specifics online. Alibaba.com is a great place to find manufacturers for all types of items.
I emailed a long list of companies from Alibaba, sending sketches along with measurements and details of how the item needed to look and function. Many of them responded with questions and little by little, we worked our way towards getting samples.
It’s not free, but its not expensive either. I compared all the samples and picked a company that had the best quality & price combo. Some samples were just beyond terrible haha, so cheers to testing.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching the business has been tricky purely based on the fact that our season is over so quickly.
We sell a Christmas Product, so basically we have 3 core months to sell and learn as much as we can in the hopes we can apply it properly to grow as much as possible the following season.
Mess that up, and you need to wait another year to make a big move. Our first season was focused on crowdfunding. We were able to raise enough funds to pay for a small factory run of around 3,000 units and sold all of them.
And after pushing that first batch out the door and making it through our maiden voyage, I knew that I needed to plan our next batch much further out. Everything happened so fast the first time, that we ended up shipping units from China via air to fulfill the orders in time. Not a good situation to be in, so now we take advantage of the long gap between seasons to make sure we have everything ready months ahead of time.
The next season we repurposed all the sales into protecting our idea with a few utility and design patents, trademarking, a new website, new packaging, and stocking up on a more inventory. That ended up being perfect timing for getting on QVC and Shark Tank where the publicity pumped up our funds even more. And since I’m on the topic of QVC and Shark Tank, never underestimate the power of a cold call. All it took was a phone call for each of those opportunities to develop. Look up potential contacts online using LinkedIn, and start cross checking that information with the business headquarters location. Usually you can get in touch with a receptionist that will give you an email or even connect you directly with the person of interest. Even if it’s not the right lead, sometimes they will send you in the proper direction.
Our last season has been the best yet! After all the awareness we gained being on national television, our Christmas Tree Huggers have performed fantastically online, and that’s where we focused 100% this last season. Our main goal was to sell on as many online platforms as possible. Lots of good data now to help us hit even harder online next season.
One of the main lessons I’ve learned in launching a business has been to have patience. You can't do it all at once, especially with such a seasonal product. However, what you can do with a seasonal product is take advantage of the slow season to plan a solid approach for when things heat up. As a high energy entrepreneur it’s easy to get excited and run in too many directions at once. So take a step back, pick a few big goals, and just focus on getting those as right as you can.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our biggest asset to attracting and retaining customers has been our reviews.
If you Google “The Christmas Tree Hugger” you’ll see it's just shy of 5 stars everywhere it sells. That’s not because we got lucky. We personally hit the streets and trade shows talking to strangers and paying them $5 each to try out our prototypes and answer questions anonymously via a survey app to help us determine the proper pricing, patterns, packaging etc.
Plenty of helpful insights came out of that process, and we were able to learn things such as what patterns people most preferred, if they thought having a reversible pattern was worth paying extra for or not, price point experimenting, if the packaging had enough information etc. All these things gave us a better chance of creating a product that more people are happy with.
Additionally, we ship all orders almost immediately, and have a great return policy to keep customers smiling. Historically, we’ve not had the time or budget to hit hard on advertising, so we strive to keep customers happy and rely on good reviews to keep them talking. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.
Some of the channels where we have great traction and keep getting awesome reviews are Amazon, Jane.com, Wayfair, Zulily, Homedepot.com, Etsy, Ebay, QVC.com, and a few others.
Now that we have a few seasons under our belts, the goal is to put more effort into social media ads. Before now most of our sales and growth has been completely organic. I wish I had more information other than word of mouth and good reviews, but so far that along with some great PR is what has gotten us where we are. Very excited to see what a more traditional advertising push does for our sales and customer retention as we keep evolving.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now we’ve been very successful in building awareness and creating an entirely new category for Christmas tree decor, and the future looks bright for our goal of making
The Christmas Tree Hugger more of a mainstream product.
One more super simple way to get things done is just too easy to not mention. Watch less TV. As much as I love a good series, Game Of Thrones will keep you up late and steal your potential for success.
Ideally, this tree accessory will become as common as tree skirts, tree stars and other tree ornaments. Through more PR, the proper physical store placements, and selling on as many online platforms as possible, we see our solution as being a growing part of family holiday traditions when it comes to putting all the trimmings on the tree.
Each season we’re getting more and more people to realize that our simple solution will not only make their artificial tree look better, but it makes the tree look like a real tree too. And in a landscape where more and more people make the switch from real tree to fake tree every year, I’m excited to have something that makes that transition even easier and worthwhile.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes! Getting up early before life starts rolling full tilt is a huge game changer for productivity.
All the best opportunities my business has been exposed to have been from not just writing an email and checking the box as done. It’s been from following up 10 times or more, picking up the phone to actually talk to a human.
I used to be more of a night owl, but my business partner mentioned how early he gets up to get a head start on the day. After I gave it a shot, I found out I had more energy to put against the constant list of things to tackle.
It’s a quiet world at 4am. You can just cross off your list of things to do so much easier without all the distractions of a busy world. Another plus about that, is more time for family and friends at the end of the day.
One more super simple way to get things done is just too easy to not mention. Watch less TV. As much as I love a good series, Game Of Thrones will keep you up late and steal your potential for success. Winter is coming and you won’t be ready if your glued to the TV.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our favorite tools and platforms are the following:
This platform gives you the flexibility to set up a business anyway you can slice it. There are just so many apps available to make your site easier to handle. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the customer service is super helpful and responsive. You can chat, email or call them 24/7. I found that to be very helpful in those fire drill moments where every second counts.
If you have a business where you need to ship items from multiple platforms online this combo of software will simplify things immensely. You can pull in orders from Ebay, Amazon, your website, Etsy, Wayfair, Zulily, Jane.com and the list keeps going. Everything lives in one spot and links to a Stamps.com account where you can get postage and print labels in just a second. We would have imploded without these services.
This is an amazing hub that gives you access to thousands of high quality video tutorials aimed to teach you almost any software you could be interested in learning.
For example, I really need to get up to speed on social media for our next big push, and I've been loading up on classes to help perfect marketing techniques on Pinterest and Instagram. If you’re into learning new skills, you’ll love this platform. Something for everyone there.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Unfortunately, I don't have much time to actually sit down and read a good book, but wow has it been great listening to podcasts.
The one I enjoy the most is called The School Of Greatness hosted by Lewis Howes. It’s got everything you need to keep the entrepreneur fire burning.
Another good one is The Solopreneur Hour with Michael O'neill. Lot’s of tech hacks and helpful services to optimize and better focus the efforts of anyone with a small business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think for my story, one of the most important factors has been the relentless persistence and thick skin no matter how many people say “No”.
All the best opportunities my business has been exposed to have been from not just writing an email and checking the box as done.
It’s been from following up 10 times or more, picking up the phone to actually talk to a human. As a small business you need to try harder to get noticed, so if that takes you showing up in person to get noticed, go for it!
Be shameless and be bold. The upside potential is too big to be modest and passive.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Hopefully soon, but right now we’ve been served well by leveraging systems and tech that help us move our product.
Future facing, it would be nice to have a small team that handles our social media since we get a bit wrapped up in other aspects of the company during our peak season.
Could have used a small army to pack boxes our last few seasons haha. But we’ve worked past that fortunately.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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